Discussion Notes for Friday AM Discussion Group | (the A.M.s)


May 14, 2021


Given the memorial capacities of architecture, it cannot be coincidental that in many of the world’s cultures, the earliest and most significant words have been funerary               p123


The idealising style that in many countries dominated architecture between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries has a habit of striking us as both tedious and hypocritical. We find it hard to overlook, let alone forgive, the frequent discrepancies between idealized architecture and the reality of those who commissioned and lived with it. We know that Venice…repeatedly absconded from the virtues trumpeted by the maidens on the Sala del Collegio’s ceiling. We know that she trafficked in slaves, ignored her poor, dissipated her resources and exacted immoderate revenge on her enemies…By contrast with our idealizing predecessors, we tend to pride ourselves on our interest in reality. We reward works of art precisely insofar as they leave roseate ideals behind and faithfully attune themselves to the facts of our condition. We honour these works for revealing to us who we are, rather than who we would like to be. pp135-136

Question: Is this contrast true?


We might ask why, for some three centuries in the early modern period, artists were applauded chiefly insofar as they could produce landscapes, people and buildings that were free of ordinary blemishes. We might wonder why artists competed among themselves to paint gardens and glades that would be more bucolic than any actual park, why they sculpted marble lips and ankles more seductive than those through which real blood might flow, and made portraits of aristocrats and royalty which showed them to be wise and more magnanimous than they ever were. p136

It was rarely naivety that lay behind these efforts, or indeed the desire to deceive. The creators of idealized works were worldly creatures and credited their audiences with being so too…The proponents of the idealizing tradition, the notion that artists were being naïve in suggesting anything other than this would itself have appeared naïve. The purpose of their art and their buildings was not to remind us of what life was typically like, but rather to keep before our eyes how it might optimally be, so as to move us fractionally closer to fulfillment and virtue. Sculptures and buildings were to assist us in bringing the best of ourselves to the fore. They were to embalm our highest aspirations.  pp136-137

Question: Respond to de Button’s ideas here. Are artists of the past and present so different?


…Friedrich Schiller proposed that the perfections presented in idealised art could be sources of inspiration, to which we would be able to turn when we had lost confidence in ourselves and were in contact only with our flaws, a melancholic and self-destructive stance to which he felt his own age especially prone. ‘Humanity has lost its dignity,’ he observed, ‘but Art has rescued it and preserved it in significant stone. Truth lives on in the illusion of Art, and it is from this copy, or after-image, that the original image will once again be restored.’ Rather than confronting us with evocations of our darkest moments, works of art were to stand, in Schiller’s words, as an ‘absolute manifestation of potential’; they were to function like ‘an escort descended from the world of the ideal.’ If buildings can act as repositories of our ideals, it is because they can be purged of all infelicities that corrode ordinary lives. A great work of architecture will speak to us of a degree of serenity, strength, poise and grace to which we, both as creators and audiences, typically cannot do justice – and it will for this very reason beguile and move us. Architecture excites our respect to the extent that it surpasses us.             p137

Questions: Here de Button seems the most exultant so far about the power of art/architecture. Do you think of Art in this way? Why? De Button seems to put a lot of power into the hands of creators and even more into the art they make, especially architecture. Is this a fair observation of the world or art and the power or art?

**All content from The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton unless otherwise noted. Compiled by Kirk Irwin